I recall hearing the term saya biki quite a bit when I began my practice of Iaido at Doshikai. Eventually, I came to accept that the term referred to the movement of the saya during nukitsuke. Over time, my perception of saya biki has come to also include the movement of the saya between nukitsuke and kirioroshi as well as the movement of the saya during noto. These saya movements serve multiple functions and are often integral to being able to properly perform correct waza. Within the framework of Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iai, saya biki and its proper application is fundamental and myriad. As such, a narrow examination of saya biki in Ipponme Mae will serve here as indicative of the system in general.
In the scenario presented in the All Japan Kendo Federation English version of Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iai, for the kata Ipponme Mae, “Detecting the harmful intention of the person in front of you, forestall it by using the sword tip to cut his/her temple in a horizontal action and then bring the sword downwards from above the head in a vertical action.” As part of the instruction for the kata, saya biki is noted but never specifically named or explained. It is only with practice, proper instruction, and correction does the importance of saya biki begin to reveal itself.
At the opening of the kata, the sword is drawn and rotated to cut horizontally across the opponents face at the level of the temple. This drawing cut is nukitsuke. Drawing a properly sized sword from the scabbard would be awkward if not impossible without the rearward movement of the left hand. The drawing motion is two-fold; the sword is drawn from the saya while the saya is simultaneously drawn off the blade. The long, broad muscles in the back are engaged as the core is thrust forward adding authority to the cut. The left hand on the saya and the right hand on the tsuka continue in a single movement until the completion of the horizontal cut when they end in unison. The result is that the saya ends its motion pulled sharply back with the kojiri pointing to the right.
During furikaburi, the sword is raised over the head in a thrusting motion directed behind the left ear and up. The left hand on the saya moves as one with the right bringing the saya forward to a position in front of the navel and then grasping the tsuka at the level of the chin/ear. The kata continues with both hands on the tsuka from the completion of furikaburi, through kirioroshi, and into chiburi. At the completion of the vertical cut, kirioroshi, both hands are on the tsuka. As chiburi is initiated, the left hand moves to rest flat against the hip where the saya passes through the obi. The left hand remains there until the end of chiburi.
Iai Goshi is a demonstration of Zanshin or awareness and is a prescribed element of the remainder of the kata. During noto, sheathing the sword, this awareness is demonstrated through proper saya handling. The sword is sheathed rather than the sheath being sworded. The practitioner must be aware of the position of the sword as it is drawn across the top of the left hand between the forefinger and thumb. As the blade passes over the opening or koiguchi the left hand grasping the saya around and a little past the opening of the saya is moving back along the line of the obi until the tip of the sword falls into the saya opening. The muscles in the back and chest are engaged in this motion and reverse direction to bring the saya and sword together ending with the tsuba in a position in front of the navel. The thumb of the left hand comes to rest on the tsuba and the practitioner assumes taito shisei and completes the kata.
Saya biki is integral and persistent throughout this and all of the ZNKR kata. It is necessary for proper and correct waza and as an expression of awareness and bearing giving balance to motion and allowing a better economy of motion in the performance of kata.